By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Usually, the films produced and released by Regent Entertainment go straight to cable, then to the video-store discount racks; such is the inevitable fate of fare starring Jack Wagner, Lorenzo Lamas, Adrienne Barbeau, Bruce Boxleitner and other Love Boat castaways. That is how Regent, with offices in Preston Center and Los Angeles, makes its money: by producing inexpensive movies with inexpensive stars, then selling them to Lifetime or the Sci-Fi Channel and then to international home-video distributors. Regent has had its occasional successes and reputable releases--1998's Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, most notably, and an entertaining new Six Feet Under spin-off mockumentary called Showboy--but its roster is dominated by such titles as Witches of the Caribbean, Paradise Virus and Wolves of Wall Street.
The Hunting of the President only sounds like yet another of Regent's horror pics, but it's actually a documentary based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' best-selling 2000 book, in which the journalists attempted to prove that, yup, there were indeed a bunch of shadowy right-wingers hell-bent on bringing down Bill and Hilary Clinton. Come to think of it, maybe it is a horror film no matter your political persuasion. Those on the right will view it as one more bit of overheated lefty agitprop, no more credible than Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11--especially since it was co-directed by Evening Shade and Designing Women producer Harry Thomason, one of the Clintons' closest friends. Those on the left will view it as unassailable truth, a sort of Zapruder film in which a president is attacked by right-wing connivers and con men staging a coup d'état.
The Hunting of the President, which cost a little less than $2 million to make, opened June 18 in New York City and Little Rock; according to Regent Chairman Steve Jarchow, who started Regent in 1994 after owning the Studios at Las Colinas, it grossed about $34,000 its opening weekend on only two screens. It has begun a slow rollout, first in Washington, D.C., then in Dallas at the Plano Angelika and at Regent's Highland Park theater in August. Initially, Jarchow thought the movie might play on only a handful of screens, but its opening-weekend haul--as well as the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, which will probably gross $100 million in domestic release alone, and Clinton's autobiography My Life--will likely force Regent to expand distribution before the DVD release some time before the November election.
"We got some things that broke our way," Jarchow says. "It's a pretty good picture, not offensive but still makes points. Then we got the benefit of Fahrenheit 9/11, and we're showing trailers of our film before it in some cities. And then Clinton showed up for the New York premiere and gave a 45-minute speech and talked about the history of this investigation and was critical of himself and others. It was thoughtful and balanced, like the film, and was something I will remember all my life. I don't think this movie's going to be huge, but it will be quite successful and profitable."
Regent got involved in the making of Hunting early, some time around the spring of 2001. Harry Thomason had shopped the concept around, but found no takers; people were simply burned out on Clinton. Initially, Thomason wasn't going to be directly involved, because he worried that people would see his name attached to the project and dismiss the movie as a defense mounted by a pal, dashing all credibility no matter its genesis as a well-regarded book by two reputable journalists.
At first he couldn't get any major production company interested. After the bruisingly contested election of 2000, none wanted to bother with a movie defending Slick Willy made by the same good buddy who had been involved in the Travelgate scandal in 1993. Thomason was also the same guy who directed Legacy, the glowingly Capra-esque retrospective screened before Clinton's speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The dude was the very definition of "conflict of interest."
That didn't bug Jarchow. He and his partners wanted to be in business with Thomason, who had a respectable track record with wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, and at last they would be able to release a movie with a recognizable, brand-name star: William Jefferson Clinton. In fact, The Hunting of the President has all the makings of a summer blockbuster: It has its martyred and humiliated heroes (most notably Susan McDougal, jailed for 18 months for refusing to rat out her buddy Bill) and vilified bad guys (Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr and Paula Jones adviser-turned-conservative firebrand Ann Coulter) and a cast of grubby, greedy sleazes and ambitious journalists who thought nothing of repeating salacious rumors to sell papers and make careers.
"We actively thought, once we started trying to put it together, 'Look, guys, we need Gabby Hayes and Gene Autry and the ingénues,'" Thomason says. "So we structured it that way. We had to build our own characters so people would find at least some interest in the movie...Initially, every distributor told us this movie would be more trouble than it was worth and they didn't want the right wing harping at them."